Earlier this year my wife Amy and I kicked off the third term of teaching in our local church’s theology-based evening service. For a variety of reasons, we decided to focus this term’s sessions on Pneumatology – the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Drawing on our two very different stories, experiences of God, and our theological education (Both as individuals and as a couple!), we sketched out a spectrum of belief and invited all those present – long term members of the church, newcomers, non-Christians, etc – to think about what and why they believe about the Holy Spirit. What follows below is a script of the talk Amy and I gave:
This is our third term of doing theology evening services, and we felt that a great way to start this year off would be to consider who God says God is, and particularly what it means to say ‘we believe in the Holy Spirit’.
In the very first of the theology-themed evening services last year, we considered what it might actually mean to ‘do theology’, particularly in places like this. That session was built around, and riffing off, a verse from 1 Corinthians, where Paul writes “For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God”. Some people think we shouldn’t ‘do’ theology, and instead focus on ‘doing the stuff’. In the Vineyard we are keen to do what Jesus did, to see what the Father is doing and join in with that, and to be sensitive and open to the Holy Spirit. So when we see the Spirit searching the depths of God, bringing out truth, and treasure and beauty, we want to do that: we call that doing theology. There is often a stigma around theology, that it is boring, anti-spiritual, and kills faith— but we want to bust that myth wide open. Theology is simply getting to know God better, which is the most exciting thing in the world.
In the office I work in, for a Christian Charity, there is another Bible verse on the wall, Acts 1:8:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
When we say that we believe in the Holy Spirit, we are saying that God himself comes to live in us, empowering us for witness to a broken world, to partner with the King of Kings in seeing the Kingdom come. Believing in the Holy Spirit is biblical – because the Holy Spirit is God, and reveals God to us. The Holy Spirit has a purpose because the Spirit is a person – not a force we can use or a weapon we can wield. Rather, God the Holy Spirit is God himself, coming to be with us, as we join in the mission of God, bringing Jesus into all places for all people.
Having said that, one theological observation I would want to make is that every different kind of Church comes up with its own language and traditions. It was great to have Ben Cooley with us this morning, and I particularly enjoyed his usage of humour – particularly around donuts. He joked that we have donuts just before the talk in the morning to wake us up, and then we need ministry afterwards because we hit a sugar low. Whilst flippant, there is a serious point behind that. We need to learn to distinguish, to discern. Are we excited and happy because the Holy Spirit is at work – or because we’ve had too much sugar and caffeine today? Are we feeling a tingly feeling because the Holy Spirit is touching us, or because we are excited to be worshipping with other Christians and connecting with other people?
John Wimber, one of the founding fathers of the Vineyard movement, of which this Church is a part, had a great way of putting things. On this topic of discerning, he said, in his book ‘The Way in is the Way On’;
“During the time of prayer for healing I encourage people to “dial down”, that is, to relax and resist becoming worked up emotionally. Stirred up emotions rarely aid in the healing process and usually impeded learning about how to pray for the sick. So I try and create an atmosphere that is clinical and rational while at the same time powerful and spiritually sensitive. Of course, emotional expression is a natural by-product of divine healing and not a bad response. Artificially creating an emotionally charged atmosphere militates against divine healing and undermines training others to pray for the sick.”
We aren’t trying to make things happen, we are inviting God to come and have his way with us. We need to understand what we do, why we do it, and train and equip others to do the same. We do that because we believe that the Holy Spirit wants us to – and that God wants to partner with us in the coming of the Kingdom. The coming of the Kingdom and the Holy Spirit are intimately intertwined. Isaiah 61:1 is a classic verse that demonstrates that:
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners”.
We want to recognise and honour other views, held by other Christians, because we all come with our our stories, our own ways of trying to understand the Bible, and because Jesus’ great prayer is that his church would come together in Spirit and Truth. So, when we examine some of the things that different kinds of Christians believe, we aren’t saying that they are wrong, or heretics, or that our way is best. Wimber used to say that the Vineyard is just one vegetable in the stew of the bigger church. Yesterday, I had a delicious beef bourgignon. And the thing that stuck with me was the shallots. Crazy, right? A little vegetable, but bringing an added dimensions to the flavour, and resonating with me.
Amy and I grew up in very different churches, and in some ways us doing this thing together is a literal sign of some changes. The church I grew up in was, and is, a faithful Baptist Church, with a big passion for the Bible. I used to be able to sing the books of the Bible to a little tune – and over our Sunday School, we would go through the whole big story of the Bible every three years. The preaching was, and is, fantastic, opening up the Bible and getting us all to marvel at the goodness of God. I didn’t have many friends my own age there – so I had friends from other churches, who I thought didn’t know their Bibles quite as well. They also did strange things like go to Soul Survivor conferences, something called New Wine, and always had a ‘ministry time’ at the end of their services.
This church believed in God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit was relegated to what felt like a supporting role. We didn’t pray for miracles or healing – or, at least not in a way that expected anything other than God to comfort the people hurting – and we believed that God spoke only through Scripture. I can’t really remember any particular teaching on the role of the Holy Spirit or what we in the Vineyard might call ‘ministering in the power of the Holy Spirit’. Functionally, most of the time, I was what you might call a cessationist – someone who believes that whilst the Holy Spirit is God, the miraculous and spectacular gifts – like healing or words of knowledge – described in the New Testament ceased at some point shortly after Jesus’ ascension.
I went to University to study theology, partly because I hadn’t done well in my History AS but more because I wanted to test what I believed. Arrogantly, I often couldn’t understand why on earth people believed different things than I did. A particular area of interest was what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit. I vaguely knew about ‘Pentecostals’ and had googled the Vineyard enough to tell friends and other people in the Christian Union that Trent Vineyard was definitely a cult. Whilst studying the New Testament, though, I realised that my assumed cessationism was not a particularly biblical point of view. At the time, I started to think that, just perhaps, God did continue to do things, that prayers for healing would be answered more spectacularly than medically, and that God would actually provide specific guidance to people. There is a New Testament scholar called Rudolf Bultmann who had a particularly blunt way of putting things. He famously said “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”. I remember being struck by this, and challenged that I fundamentally disagreed with that premise, but didn’t know why. Exploring some responses to this statement, and Bultmanns wider theological project, led me to a really awkward place.
I started to think that I had two choices, intellectually. One the one hand, I could have intellectual integrity, and admit that I agreed, that science and other things had made what was described in the New Testament untenable to believe today. On the other hand, I could become an Atheist, or perhaps a liberal Christian, appreciating Jesus’ moral teaching, but not believing in the literal history of the Bible. On the other hand, I could listen to other, wiser bible scholars. I could become an atheist, or I could explore what it might mean to be a ‘charismatic’. This story could be a lot longer – but I ended up at Trent Vineyard, which seemed to me to be a relatively relaxed Church where I could explore what it meant to pray ‘come Holy Spirit’, and explore what Luke meant in Acts 1:8 by ‘power’. I’d come to the conclusion that the best way to read the Bible was to be a Charismatic, and over the last 8/9 years or so, I’ve become more convinced that the Bible is true, and the Holy Spirit is doing more beautiful and more exciting things than I can possibly imagine.
At university, through the Christian Union, I met my wife Amy, who has a rather different Christian story:
My childhood, on the other hand, was very different. I grew up in a loosely Anglican church which had a huge emphasis on the ministry of Holy Spirit. I went to Soul Survivor and Spring Harvest every year, and a lot of my faith was built on what I experienced at these festivals and what the Youth Leader told us. There was less emphasis on the Bible… the Bible was described as extremely important, to be held highly etc but as a youth group we rarely looked at the Bible and what it said about things – we just listened to the Pastor. We had a lot of ‘soaking in the Spirit’ evenings, prophecy evenings and spirit evenings with not a huge amount of meat or understanding about the Biblical reasons behind this.
When I went to university and met Tom, we found each other incredibly irritating. I found Tom to be extremely pompus with his views, dry and way too academic to be a ‘proper Christian’. He wore way too much tweed and talked about someone called John Calvin way too much. Tom found me too flaky, experience-driven and not really sure what I believed. I was too liberal and didn’t have enough books in my bookcase. Because of this, we found each other fascinating. We argued a lot, discussed things for hours and met up to try and prove why we were right. Over time, we actually met in the middle (well… Tom saw the light and started believing in the Holy Spirit…!) As a couple we now believe that the Holy Spirit is alive and works through the ways mentioned in the Bible. We believe God gave Himself to us, not just paying for our sins, but through the Holy Spirit, so we can minister to others through evangelism, prophecy, speaking in tongues, words of knowledge, healing etc…
When we see for ourselves that the Bible promotes these things, we need to take them seriously. We can have a peace in knowing that the Word of God is our rock, and if our rock works in these ways, we can obey this, having a foundation for what we believe. Not in a weird way, but in a naturally supernatural way, where we just let God be God. And this is what we do at South West – we minister in the power of the HS and it’s a very normal and not hyped up thing. We want to be obedient to the role of the HS, but in a way that points to the Bible, and not ourselves. As a side note, we will talk more about the gifts of the spirit and why as a church we believe what we believe, in the coming weeks. Whilst Tom and I passionately holding this view mentioned, we also acknowledge that the various Christians from our respective childhoods are also Jesus-loving . None of us will have the perfect answer until we meet Jesus face-to-face one day.
As Christians, it is really important to know about the wider church, our family, and where we fit in. For us individually, we need to decide for ourselves what we believe the Bible says about the Holy Spirit. It might be that you hold different views from the person next to you which is fine, but it is important to understand why we believe what we believe, so we have an informed faith. So we have come up with a spectrum of belief about the HS within the church today, and we hope that this will be a helpful tool for reflection and discussion. It also reminds us that we are not the only church, and we do not always have the best way of doing things. It helps us stay open minded and aware of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Hard cessationist e.g. John MacArthur
This position would basically argue that the only role of the Holy Spirit is in illumination (of the Bible), and for salvation and sanctification. So once you become a Christian, God lives in you because he has brought you back to life, and He helps you to read your Bible, pray etc. but there is no manifestation of things like prophecy, healing, speaking in tongues etc. When it comes to the rule and reign of God, or the ‘Kingdom of God’, Jesus came and ascended, and we are now in a time of persecution for the church as we wait for Jesus’s second coming when the Kingdom will come. Even though we firmly disagree with this viewpoint, John McArthur clearly is passionate about Jesus and living out the Christian life. A classic Bible verse to support cessationism might be 1 Corinthians 13:8 ‘Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.” (Emphasis added)
Open but cautious e.g. John Stott, the majority of churches in England
This position would argue that hard cessationism is hard to justify in scripture, but equally they have seen a lot of abuse of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. So generally they might be unlikely to seek to pray in tongues or to expect to hear God speak outside of just the Bible.
Third wave / continuationist e.g. The Vineyard, New Wine
This is why the Vineyard talk about ‘the radical middle’. We believe that Jesus came, ascended and left His Holy Spirit to fill His church. When Jesus was on earth and cast out demons, healed the sick, raised the dead, the Kingdom broke into history. So the Kingdom is here, but not fully yet. Sometimes we use the example of WWII. On D-Day, the troops landed in Normandy and that was the blow that would ultimately defeat Germany, but the ultimate victory didn’t come until VE, Victory in Europe Day. So with the cross D-Day happened, the battle had been won, but we are waiting for the second coming when everything is over, VE Day. We are in the balance of seeing a foretaste of the Kingdom, but also acknowledging the enemy still prowls around like a lion in this world. In light of this, we believe that all spiritual gifts in the Bible are active today, such as miracles, prophecy, dreams from God etc. But we aren’t surprised when things don’t happen, because of the difficult tension of the now and the not yet. This group might say God’s ultimate will is to heal, however this healing might be in this world, or it might be when we go to heaven. One easy way of justifying this belief on the spectrum is looking at the life of Paul. He exercised the gifts of the spirit and promoted them, but also suffered a lot, had a thorn in his flesh and accepted that this is almost the expectation when we become followers of Jesus. We suffer for Christ. Jesus could have healed Paul, but he didn’t… perhaps this is an example the now and the not yet.
Apostolic / Classic Pentecostal e.g. Bethel, New Frontiers, The Assemblies of God
Apostolic – all the spiritual gifts are active like the Third Wave group, with special emphasis on the need for modern day apostles, prophets, pastors etc:*Ephesians 4, v11-15: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Broadly they would believe the Kingdom is here as much as we bring it here – they wouldn’t or would only rarely use the language of the now and the not yet. The Kingdom is fully available to us and it is up to us to implement it in our lives. Classic Pentecostal – a lot of these people would believe that speaking in tongues is evidence that you are a Christian. They believe in all the spiritual gifts and similarly to Apostolic beliefs, they would argue that the Kingdom can fully be here. This group might say God is always willing to heal specifically on this earth.
People in this bracket might de-emphasise the Bible in testing words of knowledge, prophecy etc. They might say that the Kingdom is fully here, and therefore when prayers aren’t answered, it’s because of a lack of faith. Speaking of tongues might be necessary for salvation. e.g. John 14:12: ‘Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.’
Questions – we asked the following questions, which led to a valuable conversation.
- Where would you put yourself on this spectrum?
- What has been your experience of the Holy Spirit?
- What about the Bible’s teaching on the Holy Spirit do you find hard?
After this, we moved into a time of ministry. The wonderful thing about ministry in the Holy Spirit – and, indeed, the Christian life that Jesus invites us into, is that it is not about us, it is about Him. John Wimber, one of the founding figures of the Vineyard movement, once said:
“A ministry in the Spirit is withheld from those who seek to perform it in the power of the flesh. Pride and ambition are hindrances in the spiritual realm. A person who seeks to share the glory along with the risen Lord is limiting his usefulness to God. Sadly, many who are greatly used in healing ministry succumb to the subtle and destructive error of pride. Occasionally what begins in the Spirit unfortunately ends up in the flesh. Knowing the potential for casualties, we should approach a ministry of healing with reverence and sincere dependence on the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is still doing today what He was doing on the storm-tossed Sea of Galilee – calling common people to move above and beyond so-called natural laws and walk with Him in the realm of the miraculous. In the realm of the Spirit one thing is certain: Much more is unknown than is known! But our Lord is still calling us to follow him.“
- Francis Chan, Forgotten God: Reversing our tragic neglect of the Holy Spirit – a brilliant book.
- Michael Reeves, The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit – a great book introducing the way we can think about God as Trinity – enjoying God!
- R. C. Sproul, Who is the Holy Spirit? – a great little primer on this important question. I’d also add Tim Chester’s book Who On Earth Is the Holy Spirit?.
- Simon Ponsonby’s MORE: How you can have more of the Spirit when you already have everything in Christ – this book was personally incredibly convincing to me, and is a great conversation starter.
- R. T. Kendall’s Holy Fire – a great riposte to John MacArthur that also shows us more about what the Bible actually teaches.